The eponymous child hero of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist became a crucial cultural icon of Victorian childhood. Indeed, Dickens published the novel serially from 1837 to 1839, coinciding with the commencement of Queen Victoria's long reign in 1837. The novel follows the nine-year-old orphaned child Oliver Twist from the provincial workhouse ORPHANAGE where boys are brutally mistreated to the metropolis of London where, under the tutelage of the master criminal Fagin, boys like Oliver are initiated into the criminal underworld. In dramatizing the harshness of the work-house the novel contributed to an increasing public awareness and growing outrage at the miserable conditions to which children were sometimes subjected in such institutions.
The central dramatic concern of the novel, however, is Oliver's struggle to preserve his spiritual innocence within the criminal context of Fagin's gang. Dickens clearly articulates the Victorian tenet of childhood's innocence, which was synthesized from a variety of earlier ideological strands including Christian theology, the enlightened ideals of JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, and the Romantic intimations of William Wordsworth. Dickens, in Oliver Twist and in his later novels as well, discovered a melodramatic formula for capturing the hearts of the Victorian public by representing a child whose innocence is menaced by an evil world.
Fagin trains the boys to pick pockets, and Oliver is eventually expected to participate in burglary. Yet he desperately objects to such conduct: "Oh! pray have mercy on me, and do not make me steal. For the love of all the bright Angels that rest in Heaven, have mercy upon me!" (p. 154). Dickens suggests that a child like Oliver dreads compromising his innocence for fear of succumbing to utter corruption. In Fagin's world, children are criminally exploited, perhaps even sexually exploited–though Dickens is not explicit about this–by vicious and unscrupulous adults. Dickens was, however, well aware of the irony that it was legal institutions like the workhouse that by their brutality actually drove children like Oliver Twist into the illegal machinations of exploitative criminals.
Oliver is finally redeemed by his own resistance to evil and ends the novel under the kindly adoptive care of bourgeois patrons, but only after it has been recognized that the boy has successfully preserved his embattled innocence. In one scene a respectable doctor and a beneficent young lady observe Oliver asleep and speculate about his possibly criminal history:
"Vice," sighed the surgeon, replacing the curtain, "takes up her abode in many temples; and who can say that a fair outside shall not enshrine her?"
"But at so early an age!" urged Rose.
"My dear young lady," rejoined the surgeon, mournfully shaking his head; "crime, like death, is not confined to the old and withered alone. The youngest and fairest are too often its chosen victims." (p. 197)
In the Victorian ideology of childhood, the child was conceived as naturally innocent but also profoundly susceptible to the forces of moral, criminal, and sexual corruption. Indeed the Victorian cult of the innocence of childhood, in which Dickens was certainly some sort of high priest, was all the more intense inasmuch as innocence was seen as terrifyingly precarious.
Though Oliver survives with his innocence intact to the end of the novel, Dickens in later works would wring even more sentimental effect from the early deaths of children in their utmost innocence, notably Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. In the twentieth-century Oliver Twist would continue to exercise its sentimental spell, translated into new forms including the silent movie of 1922 with the child star Jackie Coogan, the classic film version of 1948 directed by David Lean, and the stage musical Oliver! of 1960, which, when made into a film in 1968, won the Oscar for best picture. Both of the novel's central concerns–the institutional mistreatment of children and the criminal exploitation of children–remain matters of tremendous social concern all over the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Dickens's Oliver Twist played a pioneering part in formulating that concern at the threshold of the Victorian age.
Dickens, Charles. 1993. Oliver Twist, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Fred Kaplan. New York: Norton.
Donovan, Frank. 1968. Dickens and Youth. New York: Dodd, Mead.
Kaplan, Fred. 1988. Dickens: A Biography. New York: Morrow.
Wolff, Larry. 1996. "'The Boys Are Pickpockets and the Girl Is a Prostitute': Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from Oliver Twist to London Labour." New Literary History 27, no. 2.